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STONE HARBOR - Ten years can be a long time when the challenges facing a barrier island community are mounting as rapidly as the projected sea-level rise.

As the 2020 budget preparation process gets underway in many of Cape May County's municipalities, the Borough of Stone Harbor is undertaking a process that will project budget requirements to 2024.

At the first unveiling of the process during the Sept. 3 Stone Harbor Borough Council meeting, Administrator Jill Gougher promised that a subsequent five years would be added to the projection beginning in mid-2020.

Mayor Judith Davies-Dunhour said the process has evolved from discussions officials have had with the Stone Harbor Property Owners Association (SHPOA). That group has become active in urging the municipality to take a thorough view of the challenges ahead.

At its June 8 meeting, SHPOA produced and presented its view on the challenges to island sustainability, urging that response to the challenges be part of a 10-year “strategic and long-term financial plan.”

The effort, as outlined by SHPOA, must address four critical areas: water supply and conservation, beach maintenance and restoration, bay dredging, and flood management.

Labeling the challenges as “four legs of the stool,” the SHPOA analysis pointed to threats from rising sea levels, volatile weather patterns, beach and dune erosion, and “land subsidence,” a reference to the “sinking” that can occur as a result of excessive withdrawal of freshwater from the aquifer. 

SHPOA’s call for the 10-year plan was an attempt to address threats to the borough through a planning process which could provide transparency to taxpayers concerning expected tax rates.

The process may not be easy and may require frequent adjustments as it evolves. This should not be the normal pattern of municipal budgeting, a pattern that often emphasizes continuity of expenses by category.

It will require borough officials to challenge traditional thinking that tends to picture municipal actions and related expenses as mirror images from year to year, broken when an event or new regulation diverts funds in an unexpected direction.

The purpose of a 10-year strategic plan is to expect the unexpected, to take a view of the future that provides early guidance for shifts in resources, at least at a planning level.

Reality could intrude. The question is how prepared is the borough for that intrusion.

Those present at the initial budget discussions received a repetition of five years of operating expenses in which things like the projected bottom line costs for  “other insurance premiums” were exactly the same number to 2024, accomplished by off-setting some projected increases with an “other” category that reduced expenses by the exact number of the projected increases.

What went on was the start of a traditional municipal budgeting process where previous expenses are often projected as future expense.

As the strategic planning portion of the task takes hold, strategic budget projections will emerge. Capital budget planning, with associated issues of debt levels and debt servicing, are the areas where much of this will play out, yet small department budgeting over a five to 10-year period may start to reflect the burdens of a multi-year planning process.

To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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